Climate Change

‘Necessity’ for councils to step up on climate

Analysis: In other countries, local and city governments have taken up the climate banner in the face of national-level inaction. Marc Daalder investigates whether the same should - or even could - be done here

With the collapse of the Government's feebate scheme, councils are increasingly feeling the pressure to take up the banner on climate policy. Most say they are stepping up, setting themselves ambitious emissions reductions targets that rival or surpass those set by the national Government.

How to meet those goals is another question entirely. Eight to 12 months after councils across the country declared climate emergencies, most are still workshopping their action plans. Councillors and staff alike say they face two major obstacles in accomplishing their mission: funding and tools.

"Local government is given about 11 percent of total expenditure, whereas in comparable countries with high levels of service and really good quality public assets, their municipal or local government authorities take in about 30 percent of the national expenditure," Wellington City councillor Tamatha Paul said.

Moreover, the decision-making powers granted to councils is very limited, leading some to suggest that legislation from central government is needed to empower councils or help them accomplish their objectives.

A duty to step up

Local politicians and other stakeholders that Newsroom spoke to all agreed that councils have a duty to act.

"Internationally, it has been local and sub-national governments that have led climate action in the face of interia at a national level. That's been the case everywhere. We're not waiting for Government," Dunedin mayor Aaron Hawkins said. "We're doing it in spite of what their priorities or their ambitions might be, because we don't have time to wait at this point."

While protestors are still calling for a national climate emergency declaration, councils are increasingly taking up the banner on climate policy including making their own emergency declarations. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Generation Zero's Jenny Coatham said: "We believe that not only are councils a really important part of reducing emissions - especially urban - but that the solution are kind of better in a way because it means they can be localised."

And Tamatha Paul agrees that effective change can come through council actions. "I one hundred percent think that the solutions to actually being able to reach carbon neutral will come from local government - or, at least in the local context. It's at the local level where change can actually happen."

According to Local Government New Zealand President Dave Cull, "it's not so much an opportunity as it's absolutely essential that they do" step up on climate change.

"It's a necessity. A good deal of what climate change throws at us all, at our communities, has to be dealt with by local government, in terms of adaption."

Alec Tang, Auckland Council's chief sustainability officer, told Newsroom "there's a huge expectation for the council and local government to play a part. We know Aucklanders see a big role for the council,"

In fact, a survey by Auckland Council found 88 percent of respondents thought the council had a medium or critical role to play in reducing the city's emissions.

But older Aucklanders - who are more likely to vote in local elections - were less convinced of the need for action.

Strong targets set

So, councils are widely agreed upon the need for ambitious action. What are they doing about it?

When it voted to declare a climate emergency in June, Dunedin also bumped its own net zero carbon target up by two decades to 2030. Wellington Regional Council took the same move in August, while Wellington City has pledged to halve net emissions over the next decade before reaching net zero in 2050.

Hawkins said Dunedin's climate emergency declaration "accelerated the work that we were already doing. At the same time as the declaration, in June, we put an extra million dollars in our budget for the next two years, which resourcing a fairly detailed climate resilience work programme for the city."

"Probably the most significant thing, from a mitigation point of view, that we're doing at the moment is a fairly extensive piece of work looking at an all-of-council's operation and identifying where the opportunities are and what we need to do to achieve that [2030 target] during our next 10-year budget."

"That's kicked off now and will lead into budget meetings until the end of the year."

In Wellington, "there's a framework of how we'll get to zero and what kind of parts of council or parts of the city will have to be accessed in order to reach that target," Paul said. "There isn't a solid implementation plan, so that's what I'm currently working on and that's being brought to us in the next few weeks actually."

"That is going to outline exactly the programmes and initiatives that we'll need to meet our targets. Obviously, the biggie in Wellington is Let's Get Wellington Moving. We know that 40 percent of our emissions are from private transport use, so cars. The feebate stuff, it's definitely disappointing but at the end of the day, personally I just think it's not about changing the type of cars people are driving, it's actually about making public transport the most attractive or appealing option."

"It's about moving more people with less space."

In a statement, Christchurch City Council's head of strategic policy Emma Davis told Newsroom that Christchurch has committed to net carbon neutrality by 2045, five years ahead of the Government's own schedule. The city is currently working on a specific implementation plan.

Auckland big on ideas, sparse on details

Auckland has been more lax, aligning itself with the Government's 2050 target.

Even for the country's largest city, however, cutting emissions to net zero over the next 30 years will be no walk in the park.

"There's two key things that happened at the same time and as a result of our emergency declaration," Tang said.

"One is the climate plan or framework that we put forward. One thing that resulted from the climate emergency declaration was an additional requirement for us to go, 'Okay, that's great, here's your plan, here are a whole set of actions, but how are we going to deliver it? What are the funding implications that feed into our next 10-year plan and annual budget cycle?'"

"The second one, which is directly in that climate emergency declaration, is the climate impact statement. We're going to put this into every single committee and local board report from when we come back after the election recess."

The emergency declaration, Tang said, largely resulted in these budget and bureaucracy-oriented measures.

Auckland's draft climate action framework commits the city to "rapidly increase the frequency, affordability and availability of public transport; rapidly increase safe, high-quality cycling and walking infrastructure; and assess road pricing schemes to reduce car travel and vehicle emissions".

Road transport is responsible for more than a third of Auckland's emissions.

There are dozens of similar commitments in the framework, which is big on ideas but sparse on specifics. That will change, Tang says, after Auckland Council approves the plan.

Lack of funding blamed

Almost universally, councils have complained that they don't have the funding needed to implement major infrastructural changes. Converting Auckland or Wellington from a city of cars to a city of buses, trains, bikes, e-scooters and pedestrians is no easy task.

"I think the place where local and central really need to meet is in the sense of resourcing. All of these changes that we need to make require money. It's not that we don't have the money, it's that we don't have the access to the financing tools to gain that revenue," Paul said.

"They've been supportive of Let's Get Wellington Moving, but at the end of the day, that form of financing - ie, going to central government for a handout every time you need infrastructural changes - isn't sustainable."

Cull said councils don't have the resources and tools to do all of this on their own. "That's another area where we need central government context," he said. Cull wants to see a major legislative reform that would have central and local government cooperating to create a new framework for tackling climate change and other big issues.

Overseas, cities have pledged to ban fossil fuel-powered vehicles from the streets after a certain year. Councils in New Zealand, however, say they don't have the power to do that.

There is also a role for councils to take on more debt instead of solely relying on central government funding.

"Councils need alternative funding for a whole lot of things," he said. "One of the fundamental issues facing local government is the inability to fund growth. Local government is set up almost looking backward. Local government was set up to manage. Actually now our responsibilities are around growing and the funding streams don't address that."

"All options should be on the table, whether it is debts or rate rises or central government funding," Coatham said. "It surely should be possible to gain the capital required to start a lot of these projects but the funding just doesn't seem to be quite there."

Decision-making powers too narrow

In addition to questions around funding, councils say they don't have the powers to implement some of the needed changes. Overseas, cities have pledged to ban fossil fuel-powered vehicles from the streets after a certain year. Councils in New Zealand, however, say they don't have the power to do that.

"We can't do that. New Zealand has one of the most centralised forms of Government and local government in the world, so local government doesn't have the authority to do those sorts of things," Hawkins said.

"Councils can't just say well we won't have any more carbon-based cars in our area after 2030. That has to be within a national framework," Cull agreed. 

"I don't believe we have the power to do it," Tang said. "I don't believe we could - although this would be great if we could - ban people from using or buying fossil fuel cars as a council. What we can and are doing is Access for Everyone, where you basically have a zone in the central city with low traffic."

One legal expert isn't so sure councils should entirely rule out that power.

"It would be a stretch but there is some ability to restrict specified classes of traffic," said Dean Knight, an Associate Professor at Victoria University of Wellington and an expert on local government law. "It might be seen to be an unusual use of that power, but I cannot dismiss the fact that if they come up with the evidence, they could make the case for doing it."

Councils would have to prove that the class of motor vehicle - in this case, fossil fuel-powered cars - were "not suitable for use" on roads.

Regardless, the question highlights the reliance councils have on central government decisions. Paul points to congestion charges as a policy that is sorely needed for Wellington but needs a central government stamp. With the Government unwilling to even advance the milquetoast feebate scheme, more radical measures seem doubtful.

"I believe that a major financing tool that we need access to is congestion charging. That to me seems like the most fair way to be able to finance the infrastructure changes we need to meet our targets, to get a public transport that works, to be able to offer subsidies to people who need them," she said.

"It just makes total sense to me, but central government holds the keys to that mechanism."

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